On Love and Work

“But don’t you think there’s a partner out there for you who might be more perfect?”

My brother was sitting across from my parents and me at an upper floor breakfast buffet in a Long Beach, California, hotel.

We’d been talking about a podcast, and–like most of my recent conversations–I’d managed to turn this one into a vehicle for gushing about my relationship. 

In this moment, I was gushing about how often we argue.

Rather: how good we are at communicating.

I had brought up the advice of Alain De Botton, recently interviewed on On Being about the New York Times article of his that, apparently, attracted more interest than anything else that happened in 2016. (Sit on that for a second.)

Specifically, his caution–one I find deeply compelling–that all relationships are very difficult. That people are difficult, in all our myriad, intricate ways, and that, therefore, any attempt at intimacy between them will require serious, delicate labor.

“Well,” my father had chimed, “of course that’s true in the long term. In the beginning, though, you should think the other person is perfect.”

At this, I bristled.

I’ve already said it publicly once, so, here goes again: I’m in love. I have found a partner who I deeply respect and admire. With whom I love to talk and listen and read and walk and be. Who inspires me with his compassion and commitment to working for racial and economic justice. Who makes me uncontrollably giggle and reads fucking poems. I have found someone, in other words, who I think is a really great fit for me–or at least, for the person I am now.

I have not found someone who I think is perfect.

And nor, as I told my brother and father and mother, do I think I ever will.

*

“Is he you?”

About six weeks after meeting Rob, I stood in the YMCA locker room on a Saturday morning across from a friend. As you might have guessed, things had already grown serious, and intense. Things, too, were/are not without conflict. While both he and I are skilled at talking through most things that arise, there is one particular issue–an ongoing friendship with his ex–where we struggle.

“We’ve actually talked about seeing a therapist,” I shared.

Thus, her remark: what other human would consider the idea of counseling less than two months into a relationship?

The one I’m dating, it turns out.

There are, in fact, many ways in which he and I overlap. (His mother, upon reading my blog: “She sounds like you, but in a female voice.”) Also: we both have small bladders, a tendency toward messiness and intellectual seeking, and a hyper attunement to the emotional energy of other humans; we can connect just as powerfully through physical intimacy as we can sitting on a couch, sharing passages from bell hooks or Grace Lee Boggs and reflecting on one another’s insights.

Before you throw up, let me assure you that there are, too, significant gaps: in our respective levels of interest in golf and backgammon, for example, or my desire to report on most waking moments of my day, even (on those rare occasions) when we’re apart, versus his inclination to keep some things to himself–along with other, related (and highly gendered) communication dynamics.

We talk about that–the gendered piece. And, when stuff comes up, when one of us feels slighted or aggrieved or even a little bit distant, we acknowledge and talk about it: the assorted levels of conditioning, from our families and cultural backgrounds, that, in many ways, still determine how and what we speak and behave. (Along with, ya know, lousy mornings, etc.)

As my brother was quick to point out, it can get a little exhausting.

But, for me at least, it’s also deeply rewarding. Recognizing and probing our moments of disconnection makes the moments of connection more powerful, and feel more full.

It can also make me walk around South Minneapolis, notice folks wearing wedding rings, and ask myself, Good god, how do people do this for years?

At this point (as the above might make you glean), I can imagine–or at least feel hopeful–that he and I could continue to make things work in the long term.

I also know enough to know that I don’t know anything–and that the way I (and he) feel right now may have little bearing on the way either of us feels in ten weeks or months or years.

But that, too, feels helpful: my most recent relationship felt burdened by my sense that it was somehow fated; sure, rationally, I knew there’s no such thing, but (for various reasons relating to the conditioning described above, plus the circumstances of that particular meeting and a set of shared physical features) emotionally, I let myself buy into the lie that we had to be together. And that belief, however small, fostered an anxiety that hurt much more than it helped–that coated me with a near-constant edginess, a low-lying panic: what if I fuck this up? 

I’m not immune to that now. I still have moments of terror about losing Rob. If and when it happens, I know it will suck. But I also feel somewhat lighter than I did then: right now, I think we’re great for each other, and push one another to be better people; I also know that could change. I think it does feel somewhat miraculous that we crossed paths when we did; I also don’t think there’s any providential guarantee that we should or will last.

A friend who’s been with her partner for many years recently shared an exchange they have when things between them grow hard: “Do you still want to make it work?” They ask one another. Both of them recognize that if the answer is yes, they can. And they do.

I’m not sure there’s any sounder theory of relationships than that: you both just have to want it badly enough to put up with the hardship–hardship that, no matter how long you’ve been together, will always arise.

 

On Cabins, Breaks, and Evolving (Overlapping?) Incarnations of Self

“Well,” I warned. “She’s going to be disappointed.”

I was driving back from a Wisconsin cabin, in the passenger seat beside the man who I’ve been with for the past couple months; he’d just shared his mother’s request for permission to read my blog.

“Why?” he asked.

“Cause there isn’t a trace of you.”

“Oh yeah?” He glanced toward a passing cornfield, then toward me. I knew he’d checked out the blog early on, and that he’d decided—like previous men in my life—that it made sense for him not to read it. “Why not?”

“Well,” I said. “The thing is, I’ve been in this new relationship…”

“Ohhh,” he nodded, playing along. “So you haven’t been able to process?”

“No!” I shot back. “I’ve been processing the hell outta this thing. I just haven’t felt like processing in public.”

That was Tuesday evening. It’s now Wednesday afternoon and—perhaps it’s worth noting that one way in which said Dude and I connect is a shared propensity for openness, contemplation and frequently changing our minds—I’ve changed my mind.

The circumstances, too, have changed. As of yesterday, we were in a relationship. Today, we decided to take a pause during the next month that he (and I, less so) will be traveling. At the cabin, and to some extent in weeks prior, he’d begun to express ambivalence about his ability to balance being with me whilst doing the personal work he’s set out to do. (For the record: when we met we were both “on hiatus,” and the first time he asked me out, thankyouverymuch, I said no). Today, after connecting with select members of—as he put it, encouraging me to check in with them on our drive home—my council, (also: a long run, a bike ride, and a yoga class) I told him that I don’t want to move forward while he sorts that out. Instead, I said, we should take the time apart as a chance to reflect. We’ll check in on the other end.

“Maybe we’ll decide to be friends, or maybe we’ll pick up romantically,” I said. “Or maybe we won’t want to see each other at all. I don’t know. Whatever happens, we’ll both be okay.”

This, as put by my dear friend (and council member) Robyn, who spirited herself to my porch within the hour after I texted last night in need of support, was the New Elizabeth speaking: the one who made it four months into a dating break, who distanced herself from her parents for over half of a year after recognizing them as the (well-meaning–have ya met a parent who hasn’t traumatized their kid?) root cause of her chronic pattern in relationships, the one able to occupy a state of relative calm while dating someone she genuinely likes, as opposed to she steady state of panic with which she’s so familiar. (Also, evidently,  the one with the confidence/folly to refer to herself in the third person for a few sentences.)

Of course, this is not to say that the Old Elizabeth has disappeared: we can never cure ourselves the effects of our damage, just learn to tolerate and respond to them more skillfully. In fact, she made a somewhat bothersome appearance just yesterday morning.

We’d been alone at the cabin since Sunday, and for two days modulated between solo activities (reading, writing, exercise) and what the Dude playfully termed interactive time (boat rides, meals, a singalong and a 1980s board game possibly manufactured for our relationship, titled Therapy). But by late morning Tuesday we’d each spent the day almost entirely on our own. I sprawled on the dock of the house (one lent to us by the very generous parents of a very generous friend, #blessed), reading the (difficult, stunning) Collected Stories of Clarice Lispector, absorbing an excess of sun, and wishing he would come check in. He was reading on the porch, or he was playing an instrument indoors, or he’d gone for a run—I wasn’t sure, and I was careful not to check.

(“Were you hoping I’d read your mind, again?” he asked, also playfully, over lunch a couple hours later–after I confessed how I’d felt. No, I replied. And then: Okaymaybeyes.)

The dock is a floating dock, which means that it sways along with the waves; the lake is smallish, so there aren’t so much waves as there is wake from assorted motorboats and pontoons. The morning was windy, though, and as each gust of air or force of water lurched the wood and my body in another cyclical motion, I thought, hopefully, is that him?

I felt reminded of a particularly old Elizabeth—the one who, while living with her college boyfriend, would run to the front windows on Saturday mornings in anticipation of his return home from work; who, with the sound of each passing car, would think, hopefully, is that him?

As in: am I going to be alright? As in: have I been left? As in: will this person please assure me that I’m not alone, that I am loved, that I will be okay?  

This may sound melodramatic, but for those of us whose childhoods gifted us the fear of abandonment, this kind of panic is something of our doom. For children, loneliness is worse than dying. For us, the threat of abandonment can feel like the threat of death.

I know I will never eliminate this impulse. The Old Elizabeth will always be my first response. (See above). But the work I am practicing is to recognize when she surfaces, and to treat her with more care. I’ve felt fortunate to practice these last (lovely) months with someone who has made me feel safe and secure enough to do that. He couldn’t relate—his own tendency, not totally unrelated to why we need this pause, is quite different—but he could listen to me, and hold me, and when you have spent your adulthood unable to recognize much less express your most ancient anxieties, these things are not small.

I fully expect Old Elizabeth to keep arising: in the days and weeks ahead, tinged as I know they’ll be with uncomfortable—though chosen, necessary, and healthy—uncertainty. I fully expect her to generate moments of mild panic beside lakes and roads and other assorted environs, for the duration of my life.

But today, she feels eclipsed by her newer, calmer sister: the one who has worked hard to (mostly) trust that, whatever happens in August, or with whatever partner or poem or parent or friend, she will be okay.

On Commiting, Amal and Calling In “The One”

“Two words,” she said. “Amal Clooney.”

In the form of my personal Christmas miracle, A had made an unexpected emergence from two days of bungled holiday travel, turning up home in New York twelve hours before my return flight to Minneapolis.

We sat by the window of a midtown pub.

A’s expression did not appear to include evidence that I’d shared with her the best compliment I’ve recently received: a suggestion, given around Halloween by a man with whom I’d gone on a few dates, that I might dress up as Amal Clooney–one that I opted to interpret as proof of a striking physical resemblance and with prompt, smug incredulity, shared with most people I’ve met. Somehow, I’d failed to include my closest friend.

“You didn’t tell me,” she said, shaking her head as she sipped her vodka martini and gave me a look that I understood to say, simultaneously, you look nothing like her, and, I’m exhausted, let me get on with my more important point.

Her point being: by the time she (Amal) met her husband (arguably, then, the world’s most desirable unmarried man) she had become (extremely) accomplished herself–as an international human rights lawyer who just happened to possess perfect hair and an exquisite couture wardrobe. She was so desirable because, not in spite, of her achievements.

I needed to hear this.

I needed to hear it for a few reasons.

The first, lesser reason, relates to an exchange I had this Fall with a new-ish writer friend. We were mounting our bikes en route to a literary festival in St, Paul, volleying, as new friends are wont to do, first date-ish sort of questions. I asked whether the bulk of her friends were coupled or single; she replied that nearly all of them were paired off.

“I guess my only single friends are you and…” She ticked off a few other names. “…I guess all my smart writer girlfriends…”

We proceeded to trade eyerolls and a series of stories about men we’d tried and failed to date because they don’t read books; men we’d tried and failed to date because they do read books, but prefer to be the person in the relationship that (euphamistically speaking, kind of) reads more. I told her about the (book-reading) guy who’d once told me about his friend’s observation that I was “too smart for him”–how at the time I’d heard it in flirtatious jest, and now understand it to be a sad statement of fact.

This–the tendency of some men to feel threatened by women who might intellectually outdo, or even match them–is a real (and sad) problem; unfortunately, it is one I can do nothing about.

So, on to the second reason, about which (theoretically) I can.

Let me back up.

A and I have been getting together (in bars and living rooms and lately, mostly, over iPhones) to discuss dating (and all else) for most of our adult lives. Throughout, we’ve coached one another through our opposite, equally unproductive patterns: for all my exuberance to be vulnerable and careen my heart around assorted urban enclaves, A is cautious, wary, reluctant to approach intimacy.

(A snippet of dialogue from last night: Me, ”I need to take a break from dating in January. I’m going to need so much support.” A: “I really need to date in January. I’m going to need so much support.”)

Lately, however, our conversations have taken a more formal turn.

To be specific, we are, together, reading a book. I’d tell you the title, but then you’d judge me. Okay fine, it’s called Calling in the One, and, despite the rather tacky cover illustration, it’s brilliant. “The one” is in quotes, and it actually has nothing to do with going out and meeting people, but everything to do with the kind of holistic, mindfulness-oriented self-reflection on which both A and I depend.

We have a Google doc.

Also, weekly debriefs in which we go over the lessons and exercises (sometimes meditations, sometimes journal entries) contained in each chapter.

Among the recent subjects: making commitments.

Which includes: recognizing what your purpose(s) are in life, and committing to their pursuit–with or without the romantic partner that you (if you are reading this book), are, also, committed to seeking.

I’m fortunate to feel clear about my purpose: to write. I also want to teach and build community and attend regular boot camp classes at the Blaisdell Y (and, oh yeah, find a husband), but these endeavors are secondary. I know they must remain fluid in order to enable what’s primary.

This doesn’t mean that I need to sell a lot of books before I meet my husband. (Or, hopefully, even publish one…or, you know, resolve some Thai-Cambodian border dispute…) What it does mean is that I mustn’t, in any way, temper my ambitions or goals–essentially, my life–because I haven’t yet partnered.

At the moment, I do. 

I feel more committed to staying in Minneapolis than I have to anywhere else; which is to say, not committed enough to sign a lease, buy a decent car or refrain from discussing, each time I visit NY, whether I should move back.

I feel more committed to teaching than any other path; which is to say that each time I walk in to a coffee shop a part of me wonders whether I’d be better off working as a barista.

And over the course of the (admittedly, extremely overwhelming) fall semester, one thing that felt abundantly clear is that, on those days when I stopped from hurling myself along a mental bungee cord, I felt better. I probably did a better job.

It makes sense: to invest in your life as it is enables you to be present within it.

I want to be present within my life.

I don’t want to carry around a constant, low-lying hesitation to commit myself–to a place, to a career, to a half-healthy Subaru or pricey winter sport–as though I am waiting for someone else.

Yeah, I do want that person: I want that deep, soulful connection, that partner with whom to share stories of my students and days.

I am human; and of course, I want that very much.

But I need to teach myself to know, to really, deeply in my bones know that there’s nothing I can’t do without it.

Some Notes On Prospects, Feelings, Being Boring and Being Real

“I think he sounds like your best prospect in a while.”

My friend S took a bite of her oversized burger.

I cradled my spoon beneath a bowl of sun-colored soup.

I said, “You know he lives in a different time zone?”

S nodded, flashed the hint of a smug smile. “Yeah,” she said. “I do.”

I recalled the last time someone made such a comment. It was last summer, whilst having a drink with my grad school friend D. We were on a South Minneapolis patio, and had just run into a local bartender in whom I was then interested. Not long after that, said bartender and I went on a date. He didn’t ask me out again, but did, one afternoon two weeks later when he, evidently, had about thirty minutes to spare, attempt to lure me to his house. (“Is this an afternoon booty call?” “Yes.” Truly.)

I don’t offer these exchanges to discredit D or S, both of whom, I wholely trust, hold the interests of my heart deeply in theirs. To them, a good prospect is someone who (to the best of their knowledge) genuinely likes me.

Nor do I want to diminish the (many) merits of the prospect of whom S spoke.

I report them, rather, to highlight some recent, redundant chapters in the ongoing saga that is my love life, working title, Predictable Pursuits in Pointedly Unavailable Men. (Forgive me: when it comes to alliteration and men whose creative/professional ambitions preclude paying me much mind, I am weak.)

Some days after lunch with S, I flew to New York and was between turbo visits with friends and family when I walked the length of Park Slope and called my grandmother.

S and my grandmother belong to the same generation. S, however, is not my grandmother. And in the ten years since I stopped seriously dating her son, she’s grown comfortable asking, rather directly, about my sex life.

My grandmother, on the other hand, prefers a less forward approach.

We spent the first ten minutes of our conversation dancing around the topic, covering items like Donald Trump and the varying health of family dogs. Then, How’s your social life?

Also because she is my grandmother (her initial, as some may recall from the time when we were roommates, also happens to be S), I tend to give her a hard time.

“If by social life you mean, literally, social life, than it’s great. But I have a feeling that isn’t what you mean. I have a feeling what you mean is men.”

“Well, they might be included in your social life…”

“Yeah,” I said. “They are. And it’s terrible.”

“Oh, dear. Why is that?”

I was walking alongside the Prospect Expressway, and the traffic was loud, and so was the wind.

“Ugh,” I said. “It’s the same as always. I fall for men who aren’t available and can’t get excited about the ones that are.”

Grandmother S may hold back on the interrogation side of things, but, bless her Manhattan-raised soul, this is not the case when it comes to judgment.

“Well,” she said. “That isn’t exactly original.”

“I know,” I replied. “Tell me about it.”

Equally cliché is the attendant question: But, would you be more into him if he were less into you? Or, Would you be as into him if he were more into you?

The short answer to both questions is, of course, always, I have no idea.

But then there are the other short answers, which are, respectively, Probably, and Probably not.

To elaborate: when the touring musician who literally can’t find time to launder his towels doesn’t text me for several days/months, I’m left with a surplus of hours in which to question his level of interest. But the available guy? The one who visits when he says he will and says all the things I theoretically wanna hear? I don’t have to waste a minute worrying about his affections, and can instead go straight to exploring all the ways in which he may or may not diverge from the Imaginary Man Who I Still, Stubbornly, Think Should Be My Husband.

The problem with this extended answer is that, while interesting, it ultimately leaves one exactly where one began: with short answer number one. One, still, has no idea.

*

“Haven’t seen a blog post in a while…”  Available Prospect recently commented.

“Yeah…” I said. I didn’t explain. I couldn’t.

Here’s a thing:

It’s bad enough feeling bad because you have a strong, mutual connection with someone who is unable to date you.

It’s worse to feel like there’s something wrong with you because this has been a pattern throughout your adult (okay fine, and adolescent) life.

Add to that the guilt of boring your readers because, as Grandmother S succinctly phrased it, your love life is so unoriginal.

And, oh yeah, the fear of hurting people you care about. (A: “You tend to spend a lot of time thinking about your broken heart, but man, you’ve broken a lot of them, too.” Me: “But it’s so much easier to dwell in sadness than hurting others!”)

You know, it’s enough to keep a girl blogger quiet for roughly six weeks.

Here’s another thing: as I discussed with some budding creative writers the other night, no one wants a victim narrative. In literature, as in life, we’re interested in characters who act, who take accountability for their choices, who make choices. We’re less interested in what terrible circumstances befell people than how they chose to respond.

And, sweet readers, I am making no choices. I am sitting here in a quiet, sunny, south-facing room north of downtown Minneapolis, hiding from choices. (Also, my novel draft. Which, quietly existing, as it does, as a nonverbal file on my hard drive, is a terribly easy task.)

Instead, I am thinking about my conversation with A over drinks at a quiet French bar in Greenwich Village last week. I’m thinking about the different words she and I used to describe a shared feeling: for her it was grief, for me it was a tossup between anxiety and sadness. It’s something we both recognize as a constantly present sensation. A low-lying layer of, well, Name Your Own Feeling, that we deal with daily.

Sometimes ‘dealing with it’ means trying to ignore it, or cover it up with things like popcorn and reality TV. Other times it means tending to it, with yoga or friendship or writing or inordinate-seeming tears.

It’s the product of not having something you deeply want, compounded by being at a stage in life where not having this thing sets you apart from the bulk of your peers (have I mentioned how many weddings I’m going to this summer?) and subjects you to a vicious stigma that suggests inherent flaws with your body/brain/capacity to be loved.

I know, people. It’s uninteresting and unoriginal as hell.

But damn, is it real.

 

In Praise of Being Open

I had met the woman bagging my groceries a handful of times, so, naturally, I asked if she was in love.

In my defense, I did know, vaguely, of a new guy in her life–last I’d seen her, moving shopping carts in the co-op parking lot, we’d floated ideas for third date fun.

She giggled and flicked her right hand toward me. Her left palmed a lemon.

“Oh, no,” she said. “We’ve only hung out a few times!”

I shrugged. “So what?” I said. “Girl, I fell in love, like, three times last week.”

Granted, that particular week was the one of that writers’ conference—a week in which, as one friend put it, I did a lot of living.

But, generally speaking, you likely know that I tend to fall fast. And, sometimes, maybe, on occasion, something like often.

“Oh, has it been twenty minutes?” My friend C gave a mock-glance to his watch. We were driving from the coffee shop to get gyros for lunch, and I’d announced the arrival of a new crush.

“Jesus,” I shook my head. “Am I really that bad?”

He nodded, patted my shoulder.

“Yep,” he said. And then, because C holds firm to certain convictions, among them that men are seduced mainly by baked goods, “Have you made him cookies yet?” (Answer: not yet…but considering.)

This lifestyle is not without peril. Among the risks: (appropriately) skeptical friends.

A few encounters with said crush later, I walked to meet R for a drink while wrapping up a phone conversation with A–one, needless to say, dominated by my gushy update.

“I really wanna use hyperbole,” I said, sighing as I paced a mist-wet patch of Lyndale sidewalk. “But I realize I have zero credibility.”

On the other end of the phone, in Manhattan, A’s breaths were short as she speed-walked uptown. “Yeah,” she said, flat. “That is true.”

It takes a village for me to date safely.

When it comes to jumping into something express-style, because someone is moving or unavailable or matches my tendency for recklessness, I can pretty well operate on my own. Toss me some coffee, maybe some poems, and I can glide on through that high like an angsty twelve-year old with a brand new board. (Not true for the inevitable crash-like comedown, of course, but that is for another/12-30 previous posts…)

Give me, however, the combination of a man I desire and some scenario in which an Insta Relationship, for various sensible reasons (you know, most of them) isn’t an option, and my needs swell. To coach me through any given Tuesday, I suddenly require a small army of friends to assure me of various, boring truths. (He probably hasn’t texted you back because he’s busySeeing someone once a week is what dating meansYes, he’s a catch, but so are you…) Also, daily lake runs and some pounds of Tylenol PM.

Sidenote: it would be great if, in these stretches, I also had the luxury of a personal assistant to send my emails, complete my essays/manuscripts, and teach my classes–but somehow, mysteriously, I manage without. “When I have a husband,” I assured my friend B, after distracting both of us from our work by requiring her to talk me down via gchat from some irrational Moment of Panic, “I am going to be so fucking productive.”

Another problem, in other words, with being open, is being a basketcase. I’ve told you this, and I know, it’s not that interesting. Still, it prompts that conversation, again–the one I have with myself, and dearreaderforgiveme you, pretty often: whether to simply value and accept my penchant for vulnerability, or to battle against it.

Recently, as I’ve written, I’ve contemplated some resistance. But alas, these days, I’m back to leaning the other way.

In part, this mood was influenced by a chat with a fellow writer during one of my eighteen AWP lives. A conversation, as you might guess, fueled by critical quantities of booze and acknowledged mutual (if impossible and un-acted-upon) attraction.

“It’s part of being a writer,” he said. “We’re emotional and we’re complicated and we’re endlessly fascinated by people.” He took a slug of whiskey. “I fall in love every day.”

“It’s like that Hozier song!” I cried out, leading him to nod in unimpressed recognition. “No song lyric has ever felt more true…”

“Yeah,” he shrugged. “Of course.”

It’s a recurring theme of this whole process: life and aging, that is. That balance, that sorting out, as we get to know ourselves, between which tendencies we should push against, and which we simply embrace.

And with that question, as with most, I’m not sure we ever arrive anywhere final or anywhere clear. It is, I guess, an eternal process: a perpetual effort in which we watch ourselves sometimes flail, sometimes fierce, and sometimes facedown in messes of panic/shame/humiliation/sadness/disappointment/fear–at which times, the best we can hope is to surround ourselves with sympathetic (if sometimes skeptical) pals who say the right things: I hear you, I love you, your feelings are valid, and you’re going to be okay. 

 

 

A (Rare) Resolution for 2015 (and Possibly Life)

“Hallelujah!”

A folded her torso toward the bar. “You have no idea how many years I have been waiting for you to say this.” She lifted her hand for a high five, then motioned to clink her hot toddy glass against mine. “Amen!”

She and D and I were absorbed in the regular ritual my New York visits provoke: a day decadent with long city walks, afternoon drinks and bursts of group therapy. We’d meandered from Union Square to an empty, wood-paneled restaurant on the Western edge of the Village, and after hours discussing how we would do better at steering ourselves toward respective Life Purposes, I had asked permission to re-orient the conversation.

“I feel silly talking about boys after all this Big Talk…” I said, dipping my head and offering an overt wince.

“No, no,” they both replied, quick. “We are done with anything meaningful! Boy talk, go.”

I went on to tell them about a recent shift in attitude about my approach to dating–still hypothetical, but one that I hope will lead to, well, an actual New Approach.

Historically, I have tended to go about romance in the same fashion as I go about most aspects of life–from writing to general health maintenance: somewhat recklessly, without a lot of guidelines or restrictive parameters.

Put another way, in pretty much the opposite fashion from a young man I met recently who, upon hearing that I write a blog about relationships, announced that (before settling down with his current girlfriend) he used to date “very seriously.”

Pressed to explain, he described the vast constellation of rules that organized his ways with women: the two Los Angeles restaurants to which he’d alternately escort first dates, the number of questions with which he’d always come prepared, the drinks and dishes he’d suggest, that he’d never end the night with a kiss, but if he was interested in a second, would always suggest cooking at his place.

This guy was terribly charismatic–which made me find the whole narrative charming, too. But I also found it completely baffling, as I’ve always found anything like a rulebook around romantic relationships.

We know where this attitude gets me: if I don’t feel an immediate spark, I bail. And if I do, I open myself up with such freedom and force that I allow the guy to forget he’s actually not looking for a relationship, or still getting over his divorce, or has a girlfriend…until he remembers–leaving me lurching back atop my net of supportive pals, to whom I moan embarassing things like: “I did it again…” and “I know there’s nothing wrong with me, but what the fuck is wrong with me?”

I never say: “I’m not doing this again.”

Historically, I have dismissed my dangerously open tendencies as just another endearing quirk, no different than my fear of night driving or savvy with salad dressing or inability to whistle. It’s just who I am! I say. I have thick Jewish hair and hate purple and am really shitty at protecting myself! Cheers! 

To this line of defense I add that I appreciate being open: I wouldn’t want to be shut down. That being someone who easily connects means also being someone whose heart is often sore.

I don’t think that’s untrue.

But I also think, after a pair of weeks in which I’ve felt pummeled, grasping for the remnants of what had (for a minute) been feeling like a sturdy base of self-confidence and grit, there’s got to be a balance.

I may not have to protect myself, but at this point, I want to.

(Which is what I told A and D, which is what made A fall forward in relief. Friends, people.)

The question remains, though, of how. It’s not as though I’ve been leaping into bed with every first date (and the problem of intimacy isn’t, of course, only a physical one), but the fact is that, like a lot of my peers, I don’t put off physical intimacy as long as I could. And, think now: should.

Here’s something else. In the last months that I’ve been single, I’ve done some reflecting about past relationships. One thing that keeps coming up is that I want to wind up with someone I value beyond as a romantic partner; I want to fall for someone not only as a lover, but as a person. That’s something that’s easier to know through friendship, before other stuff entangles.

Suggestions have varied: from A (female, straight, southern)’s idea of putting off intimacy for a month, to D (dude, gay)’s concern about going past three dates without “checking out the goods.”

But based on early findings of my Informal Friend Poll, pals are less concerned with how I go about protecting myself than the fact that I, in some way, do. Like most things, it’ll be considerably more difficult in practice than in theory. Physical touch is compelling, especially when it’s cold enough to freeze your fingers and minivan doors. I’m already anxious about how I’ll resist kissing my next crush.

But then again, I’m usually anxious about something. And, for the moment at least, I’m looking forward to being anxiously cautious instead of anxiously reckless.

It’s 2015. I’m thirty-one. Why not?

 

 

On Art, Ferguson and Fear

I was going to write a post about not seeing a single attractive man during four weeks in Nebraska.

I was going to tell you about the fish fry at the Eagles Club and the wine tasting at the apple orchard where wines labeled “dry” were sweeter than your average juice.

I was going to tell you how I got so tired of myself inside that writing hovel that I resorted not only to binge watching episodes of Nashville, but also to dusting off that old OkCupid account. (At which I have received, among other sundries, the most polite and thoughtful request to participate in a BDSM threesome in the history of such requests.) (Also, and yes I’m using back-to-back parentheticals, panic not: I did make substantial progress on my book.)

I was going to commiserate with you about Minnesota winter: how I’m unsure which is more (so to speak) chilling–not having someone to cuddle with as temps edge to zero, or marching into my early thirties with child-rearing prospects pinned on a crowd of digital avatars, many wearing Packers jerseys or cradling fish.

And then.

And then last week.

Listen. I tend to avoid politics here because that’s not why you come. There are so many others more informed and eloquent than me writing about our world’s varied injustices. (Like him and him, for instance.) Years ago I realized I lacked the ambition for hard-hitting journalism, that my territory is more the stuff of personal relationships.

But that’s only a partial truth. The other part is that I avoid politics for the same reason we tend to avoid many things: out of fear. Fear of offending, fear of getting it wrong, fear of hitting a false note, fear of looking bad.

And if there is one thing I’ve been thinking about a lot in this past week, it’s how fucking dangerous it can be when we let fears drive us.

*

Of all the ways in which I am privileged, few felt more important last Tuesday as the one that allowed me (because my work is flexible, because I’m healthy, because I live in Minneapolis and have engaged friends here who tell me what’s up) to spend my noon hour listening to Bryan Stevenson.

It was the day after the Ferguson verdict, and like a lot of you, I didn’t know what to do with myself, and being in a sanctuary full of people hanging on his words (and crying about them, and standing and applauding energetically in response to them) felt perfect.

And oh, he said so much that’s so important. Much of it hinged on this idea: that our culture is so broken, we are so broken, because we have let ourselves be manipulated by fear: we’ve let those in power exploit our fear to put too many people away, to give up on those people while they’re imprisoned, to abandon them further when they come out. We’ve allowed fear to trump everything: human rights and and compassion and redemption and anything like equal justice.

And then, Friday, I took a break from my hermit-happy holiday weekend (reading thisthis and this, all of which I brightly recommend) and went with a friend to see CitizenFour. And there it was again. Say what you will about the film or the filmmaker, Snowden or the Obama administration, the message seemed plain: post 9/11, we’ve let fear be the primary engine of our public policy. In the process, we’ve sacrificed our most basic liberties. Worse, most of us aren’t especially concerned.

It’s hard to know what to do with all the injustice swelling up around us. (Though, certainly, there are things: from hitting the streets to, fellow white folks, engaging where we can). Still, so many of us feel so persistently heavy when meaningful change–in terms of racial equality, Spying In the Name of Safety and countless other national and international fronts–seems so, so far out of reach.

I don’t want to sound righteous. And I don’t have answers. Too often, I let myself simply clamp my ears to it all. It’s another privilege: I don’t have to worry about being unfairly stopped, I don’t have to spend each day worrying that my father or brother or uncle or child will get killed for their race.

And that’s just it: in fact, we are all driven, in varying ways and to varying degrees, by fear. The thing about fear is that it’s human. The thing about being afraid is that we all are.

We can’t inoculate ourselves from fear, but we can choose how we respond: we can strive to not let fear enable decisions that are irrational, or hurt others, or become dangerous.

But perhaps just as toxic an effect of fear is inertia. Fear compels us to hurt, but it can also compel us to sit still: to not make ourselves vulnerable in whatever way.

As I was reckoning with all this I came upon this A.O. Scott article, along with this conversation, on the role of art in politics — specifically, the premise that artists are missing the boat in this time of critical unrest.

This subject came up recently with a pair of grad school friends who I visited in Kansas City. We were driving to the contemporary art museum when I declared that I didn’t think overtly political art could ever be any good; they disagreed on principle, but between the three of us we could only name a single, World War One era poem that belied the thought.

An hour later, gliding past one another at an exhibition of some of the most stunning, evocative paintings I’ve ever seen (by the Chinese painter, Hung Liu), many of which curators had described on small white placards as “overtly political,” I whispered to them: We better have that conversation again. 

Later, we hypothesized that maybe visual art is different, that it’s easier to separate the aesthetic from the subject matter in painting than it is in a story or poem. I’d say the same is true for a song.

Still: it’s more complicated. And not very satisfying.

A.O. Scott pleads that it’s the job of artists to reflect society and all its woes. That resonates.

But I also agree with the artists he gathered, who express that art’s first fealty is to storytelling and true, human characters. No one wants, as the writer Justin Torres puts it, “literature that functions as a rant.”

The hypothesis I served my friend about art’s trouble with politics is that art should ask questions: complicate, not resolve. One way to make art bad is to make it polemical, to make it have something clear and unwavering to say. I do believe that.

But I also want to think there’s a way for art to wade into important issues without serving up a clear, one-note message.

Too: I want to think that what stops me, and other artists, from wading into the issues that trouble us is something other than fear. Because while it’s true that bad art helps no one, it’s also true that there’s no such thing as making things without risk.

 

Slipping Up, Serials, and Self-care

“But you don’t want anything serious either, right?”

It was the early stages of one of a couple episodes this summer (in the blurred-genre serial that is my peripatetic life) in which I attempted to engage with a man on terms, either explicit or implicit, best characterized as casual. These episodes were mostly comic, but not without small tragic turns; needless to say, they did not progress beyond brief.

The speaker was a good friend. But–clearly-one who hasn’t known me very long.

I looked at this friend as if she’d presumed I hate barbecued pork chops, or joy.

“Are you joking?” I said. “I always want something serious.”

She frowned. “But aren’t you, like, not sure where you’ll be living in a few months?”

I shrugged.

“And, like, trying to focus on three different books?”

I shrugged again.

“Yeah,” I said. “It’s a thing.”

I wish it were not a thing. I wish it were not a thing in the same way I wish the idea of being settled in a routine and zip code with a partner and dog doesn’t fill me with panic in the way that it does. I wish it were not a thing in the same way I wish, sometimes, that I was more inclined to work more and play less and on occasion resist the urge to spill the details of my dating life with every passing gym buddy or charming barista.

I wish, in other words, (and as we all, at times, do) that I was someone different than I am.

We lie to ourselves all the time.

In relationships, on our own. We spin stories that suit a whole web of longings and comforts that shift as we do. I think we’re more aware of this as we age, and perhaps better at bridging gaps between who we’d like to be and how we envision ourselves. But I’m not sure that process arcs straight: we gain ground and then lose it, the way we do with most things–relationships, body image, reading and responsible bedtimes.

All to say: I’m trying not to be too harsh with myself for the fact that, despite the look of horror with which I replied to my innocent, well-meaning pal, I managed to convince myself, at certain, likely humid and sun-spotted moments, that I am someone capable of dating casually. That I’m fine with not establishing clear terms. Totally cool with not having a single freaking clue when I’m going to see someone next. Just chill about a spurt of intense intimacy followed with days of radio silence.

Blame it on the moisture; it can make things hazy.

I’d like to tell you I’ve learned my lesson.

I’d like to tell you I’ve taken a solemn vow to only pursue people whose intentions and emotional capacaties are as serious as mine.

I’d also like to tell you that I will meditate for ten minutes every morning forever after reading a difficult Ginsberg poem, and that by the end of 2014 I’ll have completed drafts of all three book projects now in the works.

Instead, what I’ll tell you is this: I’ll try.

I’ll make lists. I’ll cry on the shoulders of gym buddies and baristas and blessed single gal girlfriends who think nothing of meeting me for drinks evenings on end until I feel a little bit more okay about the abrupt end of summer. I’ll try and treat myself to the occasional massage and remember to do yoga. I’ll sit in silence as many mornings as I can. I’ll read Ginsberg and O’Hara and Kasischke and Howe. I’ll work at balancing friends and teaching with getting shit done. I’ll stay on my bike as long as weather permits. I’ll try to be honest with myself about what I need from my mother and men.

Cause we can’t always so easily harness these pesky patterns at odds with our essential natures–no matter how many times we notice (or: reader, forgive me! blog about) them.

But, more easily, we can learn how to nourish ourselves when we slip up.

And slip up, friends, we always will.

 

On Age, Sailboats, and (Still) Being Reckless

It wasn’t what I wanted him to say.

We were on a blanket–a sarong, to be precise–and wrapping up what I’d venture to categorize as among the Most Idyllic First Dates in the History of Summer: a bike ride, white wine on a patio, a walk, lying next to Lake of the Isles before sunset and scandalizing some significant section of southern Minneapolis as they jogged/biked/dog-walked past in neon droves. (It’s the Midwest: scandalizing doesn’t take much.)

“This has been extremely pleasant,” he smirked, shifting onto an elbow and holding his head in one hand. “We should definitely do it again.”

I agreed. And then: the bomb drop.

“I need to give a disclaimer,” he announced, clearing his throat and qualifying that it may or may not be the appropriate time.

A small cube of nerves began to gather in that bottom space of my belly. I propped myself up to meet his gaze as he told me, as (considering his age: young, and career/life path: uncertain) I could easily have expected he would, that he didn’t feel ready for anything serious–romantically or otherwise.

It was disappointing to hear. But not what stung.

That would be what came later: after I explained that a part of me did want to keep hanging out with him–due not only to the magic of the evening but, also, to the disarming ease that characterized our interaction from when we began chatting in the coffee shop (“You don’t need Tinder,” one friend recently ribbed. “You have your coffee shop!”); but that another, more sensible part of me feared that would be a bad choice.

“I have a hard time keeping things casual,” I explained. (An admission that, remarkably, did not seem to shock.)

Too, I said, while I’d like to think I’m in a place for carefree fun and that I’ve got all the time in the world, it happens to be a fact that in a little over a month I will turn 31–and that, in fact, I don’t.

“I hate to make decisions based on that, though…” I said. I was grasping my elbows around my knees and looking out to the middle-distant sailboats spotting the lake.

He nodded in sympathy. “But it’s the truth,” he said.

That, friends, is what’s stuck.

Because what I wanted him to say was, “No, it’s not!” or “You’re still so young!” or “Come on, you have lots of time!” (To be fair: sentiments that, a couple of days later, with some slight manipulation, he did express.)

Before that, though, I turned, as I do, to the women of my bi-weekly Boot Camp class.

“Wait, are you turning 31 or 39?” One of the regular moms I chat with and I were side-shuffling the perimeter of the gym during warm-up.

“31!”

“Oh! Please. I didn’t have kids til 35!”

“So you think I still have time to have fun!?”

Of course!”

Bless her — she made it sound so simple.

But I know it’s not.

I no longer inhabit that panicked, Find Me A Husband Scramble that took hold in my late 20s. I’ve realized I’m not capable of committing to someone without the fiery passion I deserve–and that I’ll wait for it as long as I need, whether that’s two months or twenty years.

I also know that I’d like a family–and that the longer I wait to commit, the more biologically difficult that may be.

And while it doesn’t feel healthy or useful (and certainly not fun) to freak out about finding the RIGHT PERSON RIGHT NOW, I’m not sure how I ought to feel about consciously choosing to spend time in something I’m pretty sure isn’t heading where I’d like.

“You never know what can happen,” another gym friend advised. It was Thursday’s class, and we were doing squat-jumps over a step. “Things can change!”

I shook my head. “Yeah,” I said. “But I can’t go into it expecting they will.”

With my (pesky/fortunate) capacity for quick connection, it’s a mind game, and it’s also a catch: I’m not interested in having fun with someone I don’t feel a chemistry with–and if I do, chances are good that it will start to feel like more than only that.

Who knows where, if anywhere, this particular connection will lead; it may fizzle before I get the chance to set myself up for another bout of vulnerability and likely loss.

And if it doesn’t, I’ve decided, that’s okay: when I look back on the previous occasions (there may have been a couple…) when I’ve let a compelling connection enable some reckless decision-making, for all the soreness and hurt that’s generally come later on, there’s not a one I’d give back.

Few things, after all, are more thrilling (more fun!) than rare, romantic chemistry–and for now, at least, those thrills aren’t ones I’m willing to pass up.

On Feeling Funky, Giving Up Control, Talking and Not

“This is not an okay time to be in a funk.”

A was right: there had never been a less acceptable moment for malaise. It was a sunny, warmish Saturday in New York, we had just emerged from the most joyously sweaty reggae dance class that is my new obsession, I was soon headed to dinner and celebration with eight of my best college gals; Obama was still President and the Knicks had won six straight; I had no business being down.

A swung her arm around my shoulder. “Let’s just sort this out.”

I took a couple of the deep breaths that are my trademark, paternally inherited Stress Tic, and started to talk.

The day before I’d spent a lovely, equally sunny afternoon with Ari, and we’d had something of A Talk; at first it left me feeling positive about things, about myself, about him–until, suddenly, I didn’t. Suddenly, I realized, I wasn’t sure where we stood or how I or he felt. Suddenly, I realized, I wasn’t sure whether we should keep talking during my imminent five weeks out of town; whether we’d keep trying when I got back.

“But it isn’t what I’m feeling about him,” I explained to A. “It’s that I’m letting myself feel anything at all.”

*

“If you can not trip out about it, sure.”

A few weeks ago, when I talked on the phone with that astrologist, I beseeched her for practical advice: what I should be when I grow up, where I should live, whether I should keep seeing Ari or not.

“If you can spend time with him and just enjoy it, great,” she instructed. “But if it’s gonna cause you more stress than fun, forget it. So, can you not trip out?”

Pause.

“Um…” I I stared at the rug on the living room floor, considering paisley and the gap between what I wanted to say and truth.

“Well, not really…” I said. “But I can try!”

She chuckled, and went back to forbidding me from pursuing Social Work.

A few days later Ari and I stood on the subway platform at Union Square, following an art film and Chinese dinner. (Between such dates with a Jewish guy and runs along the East River, I basically live in 1970s Woody Allen.)

“I just…” He was starting to Talk–I could feel it.

“How about we don’t?” I said.

What I was telling him was that I didn’t want to talk about “us,” but what I was telling myself was that I didn’t want to worry about it: I had determined to take those words to heart–to not “trip out,” to just enjoy my time with him and not spend energy contemplating our status or our future. I’d determined to chill out.

And for a few weeks, I did. I stopped (mostly) narrating every development to my girlfriends. I stopped reading about our astrological compatability online. I stopped obsessing about how much he liked me–besides, how much did I even like him?

I set aside the questions.

But with a week until my (temporary) departure, I  no longer could.

And at first, I felt like talking about things was the right choice. Until, the next day, walking with A after dance class, I wasn’t. I had done so well, I told her, at “not tripping out.” I had done so well at pulling back, feeling detached, withholding energy.

“I should be thinking about my book right now,” I whined. (A sentence, by the way, that grips me with a whole other cliched brand of anxiety–really, I’m someone who has to aggressively claim mental space for ‘my art’? Ugh.)  ”And instead I’m using up energy feeling angsty about this?”

“You’re beating yourself up,” A chided.

“I know,” I replied. “That’s the point.”

She shook her head. “You’re not allowed to do that. It’s okay to feel whatever you’re feeling.”

We do this. We decide how it is we’re “supposed” to feel–about a person, about a breakup, about a loss or a change–and we chide ourselves when what comes up doesn’t match.

The whole point of “not tripping out” was to relinquish control–and I’d managed to do just the opposite. I wanted to control how I felt about Ari, when, of course, there was no way I could. We don’t summon emotions; we manage them.

“What is going to get you out of this funk?” A asked. “Coffee? Kombucha? Walking?”

I pondered. “I could go for some Earl Gray with soy… and, yeah, a walk.”

“Done.”

We marched to the closest coffee shop. We strolled to Carroll Gardens. I felt better. But not totally.

It wasn’t the best moment to feel sad, I realized, but that didn’t mean I wouldn’t .